Appliances are built to perform. They work hard, year after year, usually without too many problems. They're easy to take for granted. The result is that when an appliance breaks down, you may be completely at a loss -- you don't know how it works, you have no idea why it stopped working, and you certainly don't know how to fix it.

What can you do? You can pay a professional to fix it, or you can fix it yourself and save money. This article will provide you with all the information you need to know to pull your major appliances apart and then put them back together in working order. But before you attack the refrigerator with a screwdriver, let's get some background information on major appliances.

Most appliances operate on your home's electrical system: They use AC current from the circuit wiring in your home. Small appliances work on 110-120-volt circuits, and the plugs on their cords have two blades. Large or major appliances, such as air conditioners, dryers, and ranges, usually require 220-240-volt wiring and cannot be operated on 110-120-volt circuits. Large appliances are wired with a grounding wire; their plugs have two blades and a prong. This type of appliance must be plugged into a grounded outlet -- one with openings to accept both blades and grounding prong -- or grounded with a special adapter plug. All appliances are labeled -- either on a metal plate or on the appliance casing -- with their power requirements in watts and volts, and sometimes in amps.

Small appliances are usually fairly simple machines. They may consist of a simple heating element, a fan, a set of blades, or rotating beaters attached to a drive shaft; or they may have two or three simple mechanical linkages. Repairs to these appliances are usually correspondingly simple. Large appliances are more complex -- one major appliance, such as a washing machine, may have a motor, a timer, and a pump, as well as various valves, switches, and solenoids. With this type of appliance, problems can occur in either the control devices or the mechanical/power components. Failure of a control device may affect one operation or the entire appliance; failure of a mechanical/power device usually affects only the functions that depend on that device. When a major appliance breaks down, knowing how to diagnose the problem is as important as knowing how to fix it.

Because major appliances are so complex, it usually isn't obvious where a malfunction is. (Many newer appliances include electronic diagnostics that can be interpreted from the owner's manual.) The first step is to decide whether the problem is in a control device or a mechanical device. In a dryer, for example, the control devices govern the heat, and the mechanical components turn the drum. Which system is affected? If the drum turns, but the dryer doesn't heat, the problem is in the control system. If the dryer heats, but the drum doesn't turn, the problem is mechanical. This kind of analysis can be used to pinpoint the type of failure -- control system or mechanical system -- in all large appliances.

To find out exactly what the problem is, you must check each part of the affected system to find the malfunctioning part. This isn't as difficult as it sounds, because appliance components work together in a logical sequence. Starting with the simplest possibilities, you can test the components one by one to isolate the cause of the failure.

Repairing Major Appliances

There are three very important rules you must follow when you attempt to make any type of appliance repair. Don't ever try to save time or money by ignoring these rules. You won't save anything at all, and you could end up hurting yourself or ruining the appliance.

  • Always make sure the electric power and/or the gas supply to the appliance is disconnected before you test the appliance to diagnose the problem or make any repairs. If you turn the power on to check your work after making a repair, do not touch the appliance; just turn the power on and observe. If adjustments are needed, turn the power off before you make them.
  • If the parts of an appliance are held together with screws, bolts, plugs, and other take-apart fasteners, you can probably make any necessary repairs. If the parts are held together with rivets or welds, don't try to repair the appliance yourself. Call a professional service person.
  • In most cases, broken or malfunctioning appliance parts can be replaced more quickly and inexpensively than they can be repaired by you or a professional. Replace any broken or malfunctioning parts with new parts made especially for that appliance. If you cannot find an exact replacement for the broken part, it's okay to substitute a similar part as long as it fits into the old space. In this case, refer to the manufacturer's instructions for installation.

Appliance parts are available from appliance service centers, appliance-repair dealers, and appliance-parts stores. You don't always have to go to a specific brand-name appliance parts center to obtain the parts and service you need for brand-name appliances, so you do have some shopping/service choices. If you can't locate a parts service center in your area, order the part you need directly from the manufacturer. The name and address of the appliance manufacturer are usually printed on the appliance. Be sure to give the manufacturer all the model and parts data possible for the appliance. If available, search on the Internet for replacement parts.Before you make any appliance repair, make sure the appliance is receiving power. Lack of power is the most common cause of appliance failure. Before you start the testing and diagnosis process, take these preliminary steps:

  • Check to make sure that the appliance is properly and firmly plugged in and that the cord, the plug, and the outlet are working properly. To determine whether an outlet is working, test it with a voltage tester.
  • Check to make sure the fuses and/or circuit breakers that control the circuit have not blown or tripped. There may be more than one electrical entrance panel for your home, especially for 220-240-volt appliances such as ranges and air conditioners. Check for blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers at both the main panel and the separate panel.
  • Check to make sure fuses and/or breakers in the appliance itself are not blown or tripped. Push the reset buttons to restore power to appliances such as washers, dryers, and ranges. Some ranges have separate plug-type fuses for oven operation; make sure these fuses have not blown.
  • If the appliance uses gas or water, check to make sure it is receiving an adequate supply.
  • Check the owner's manual for the appliance. Many manufacturers include helpful problem/solution troubleshooting charts. If you don't have a manual for an appliance, you can probably get one -- even for an old or obsolete appliance -- from the manufacturer's customer service department.

All right, now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, it's time to dive right in. Move on to the next section to learn how to disassemble a major appliance and the details on grounding systems.